All Room, No Class

As schools close, locals worry about the emptiness at their neighborhoods' hearts

Having closed nine schools already this year, the pain felt in the Tucson Unified School District might not be over. At the same time, affected neighborhoods wonder about what will happen to the now vacant buildings.

District planner Bryant Nodine confirmed last week that a TUSD task force should be reconstituted shortly to look at the district's difficult budget situation and the option of shutting down even more schools.

"If feasible," Nodine adds of a possible next round of school closures, "a recommendation (to the TUSD governing board) should be made by January."

That possibility isn't surprising in light of TUSD attendance figures. Comparing last week's third day of a new school year with the same day in 2009, attendance was down almost five percent, to approximately 50,600 students.

The new round of possible school closures won't be of concern in the Roberts neighborhood, located south of 22nd Street between Alvernon Way and Swan Road. Their elementary school has already been shut after 50 years in operation.

The school was named after Clara Fish Roberts. She was a teacher, principal, and from 1917 to 1919 the first woman to serve on the TUSD school board.

As a result of declining enrollment, earlier this year those involved with Roberts voluntarily merged it with nearby Naylor Middle School. Since Naylor also had a low enrollment, the combined school could be accommodated at one location.

Thus, when TUSD schools reopened last week, the Roberts campus, which includes some additions to its original main building, was eerily quiet. Only two cars were in the parking lot, the basketball courts were empty, and the large expanse of grass was emerald green but deserted.

At the same time, a few blocks north on Columbus Boulevard, a sign of large paper letters read "Welcome to our new Roberts-Naylor K-8 School."

According to Donna Higginbotham-Perkins, president of the Roberts Neighborhood Association, the merger of the two schools has had only a minimal impact on the area so far. She talked to some of her neighbors and they agree the future will just have to play out.

"If you think about the economy," Higginbotham-Perkins reflects, "(TUSD) didn't have much choice. Last school year there were 23 classrooms (at Roberts) that weren't being used."

Since her great-granddaughter is now a student at Naylor, Higginbotham-Perkins recently visited the school and was impressed. "Most classrooms have new computers," she remarked, "and it was really pleasant."

On the other hand, Higginbotham-Perkins says she and her neighbors want TUSD to quickly decide what will become of the Roberts campus.

"We're afraid if the building sits empty too long," she warns, "it will become a drug haven. We've worked hard to get rid of drugs in the neighborhood ... and don't want to go too long with an empty building."

Among the possible new uses for Roberts her neighbors would like to see, Higginbotham-Perkins relates, is a one-stop center for social services. Another is holding city Parks and Recreation classes in the building.

But a branch of Pima Community College tops the list for Higginbotham-Perkins personally. "Senior citizens could go there if it was that close to their homes," she emphasizes. "It would be within walking distance."

Locating an elementary school at the center of a neighborhood so it would be within walking distance of students was the basis of a land use planning tenet first promulgated in the United States almost 80 years ago. Much of Tucson's urban form has followed that pattern since.

In Tucson, elementary schools are often situated near the center of square-mile neighborhoods bounded by arterial streets.

According to an urban planning textbook from the 1960s, this land use approach was in keeping with the theory that believed a neighborhood should have at its center an "elementary school building situated upon a common green (neighborhood park and playground) which would become the community center and focal point of neighborhood activity."

Tucson is about to find out what it means to potentially end that planning concept, at least in several neighborhoods. For her part, Higginbotham-Perkins thinks it could have other serious ramifications down the road as well.

"They're not good for teachers and students," she says of school closures in general. "There's a lot more extra crossing of (major) streets."

At the same time, she believes she and her neighbors are entitled to have input into the future use of the Roberts building. "The community has to have a say," she declares, "because they know what they want."

Their first opportunity to do that, Nodine says, will be an Aug. 30 meeting starting at 7 p.m. at Corbett Elementary School, 5949 E. 29th St. A TUSD committee will discuss the future uses of three closed schools—Roberts, Reynolds and Rogers.

Priscilla Petersen volunteered for the committee. As a resident of the Julian Keen neighborhood, whose elementary school was closed several years ago because of its proximity to Davis-Monthan Air Force base, she says her neighborhood "really lucked out" when the non-profit organization World Care moved into the building.

As for the future use of the Roberts school, Petersen says, "I think a community-based project of some sort (would be more appropriate) instead of a real estate venture."